Office for Mac 2011: Preview

Microsoft provided an extensive look into Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 at Macworld Expo 2010. The new product will arrive in time for Christmas 2010.

Representatives of the company’s Mac Business Unit told us the company is focusing on three things with this new release: better compatibility across platforms, improved collaboration tools, and a more refined user interface. Also, Outlook for Mac will replace Entourage as Office’s email client. And, in keeping with Microsoft’s 2008 promise, Office 2011 will offer renewed support for Visual Basic, which was dropped in the 2008 version.

Compatibility and collaboration
Compatibility means more than making sure that documents, spreadsheets, and presentations created on one platform open and render correctly on the other. Noting that roughly three quarters of Mac users use Windows at least occasionally, Microsoft’s Mac team says it’s also working to make the new Office for the Mac more functionally compatible with the Windows edition.

To that end, the new version of Office will incorporate document-collaboration features that take advantage of Microsoft’s online storage features. Mac users will be able to share files and collaborate on documents with other Mac and Windows users via Microsoft’s SharePoint, SkyDrive, and Office Web Apps.

Those online tools will let users collaborate on documents with other Windows and Mac Office users in real time. You could, for example, create a Word document, save it to SkyDrive, then share it. A pop-up dialog in Word will show who’s working on the document; click on that list, and you’ll be able to send them a message (as long as everyone is using Outlook or Microsoft Messenger). The paragraphs your collaborators are working on will be locked out until they’re done. You’ll also be able to edit those same documents from any computer, using Office’s web apps.

Lessons learned
Microsoft says it’s learned from user feedback about Office 2008 and has tweaked the user interface accordingly in Office 2011.

Most notably, there’s a new Ribbon at the top of each document window. The Mac version of the Ribbon replaces Office 2008’s controversial Elements Gallery, which took some fire from Mac users for its size and inflexibility. The Ribbon is designed to provide quick access to each program’s most commonly used tools. Unlike the Elements Gallery, the ribbon is customisable and collapsible.

The new suite will feel more Mac-like than Office 2008. The Ribbon, for example, is built using Apple’s Cocoa development framework, and takes advantage of Apple’s Core Animation system. Click on Ribbon tools and they will expand smoothly into pop-overs that don’t obscure the document you’re working on. There’s even a non-modal search box on the right side of the toolbar, where you’d expect it to be, allowing you to quickly search documents without having content blocked by a floating box.

Summarising the interface changes, Microsoft’s Han-Yi Shaw likened Office 2008 to a teenager – “a little quirky” – but said the new edition is more mature. “This is the version that everyone wanted,” he said.

OUR VERDICT

Some Mac users have blasted Microsoft’s plan to ‘ribbonise’ the next version of Office for the Mac, criticising its deviation from the menu structure users are familiar with, and the way it eats up screen space. However, other Mac users defended the move, welcoming greater consistency between the two platforms’ versions of Office. The other significant change is the move from Entourage to Outlook. Microsoft says that since Office for Mac has now found a place in the office/enterprise environment it has been necessary to implement Outlook for Mac, which ties into Microsoft’s Exchange Server. Whether this will aid the adoption of Macs in enterprise further, remains to be seen.

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